Exhibitions: Greeks and gems in Leiden

With roughly three major storms in that many weeks, my friend was seduced by pictures all through her hometown: a stark blue sea with white marble statue. The pic did not advertise Greece, Cyclades, Med. It tried to seduce people to visit the Dutch National Museum for Antiquities (RMO) in Leiden.

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Geisha: a Japanese icon

The Leiden Ethnology Museum lies within walking distance of Leiden Central Station. It’s current temporary exhibition concerns a Japanese icon: the Geisha. This exhibition busts a few myths around this icon and allows visitors a look behind the scenes.

So: trying to get a more balanced view of the Geisha world, my friends and I met at the small café, right at the museum gate. After coffee, tea, chats, we headed into the large building.

This ethnology museum not only hosts the Geisha exhibition. It has room for a few more. So it’s best to concentrate on one exhibition. At least, this leaves you time to explore Leiden’s charming old town centre.

After putting our stuff in lockers downstairs, we went upstairs and passed through the ground-floor doors leading to one of the museum’s wings. The exhibition sprawls through several large rooms branching off to the left and right from the first one. Practically all aspects of a Geisha’s life, the use as icon, as well as history are dealt with.

Throughout the exhibition, there are video interviews with Japanese and European people, customers, and Geishas themselves. This gives a truly interesting many-sided view. It is interesting to learn that many Japanese (and quite a few Western) men dream of an evening’s entertainment with Geishas.

Of course, most of the interviewed women have a dim view of such an event. What goes on during such evenings? Thanks to the exhibition, my friends and I are now at least aware, there is a difference between ordinary courtesans and the Geisha.

One of the exhibition rooms actually houses a teahouse. Of course, films related to this ceremony are on show there. But the walls of this room are also covered with 19th and early 20th century photos. There are portraits of former Geishas. I only knew them from the stylised woodcuts, which Vincent van Gogh liked. I still have to find out more about Yuki Kato, the Geisha who married an American millionaire.

Another room shows the Geisha as icon being used to market things. This room also has several videos. Like other visitors, I especially liked the video interview with a Canadian, who explained a bit about Geisha CRM and life behind the scenes.

Other rooms tell about the training. Girls need to make up their mind at around secondary school age. Endure the hard work and training to become a Geisha, or head for university or any other career. Of the girls who opt to train as a Geisha, between 50 to 75 percent drop out.

Of course there are rooms full of beautiful costumes, fabulous hair ornaments, wigs, shoes, musical instruments, make-up, and much more. Meaning and symbolism are everywhere, especially in the costumes and hair ornaments. Kimonos, belts, and other items of the Geisha costume not only change per season. In the case of a trainee, hair ornaments change each month of the first two-year-training period.

It was also interesting to hear about and see the changes, which took place over the last two centuries. Nowadays, wigs are worn. I hope these will allow the women to at least sleep more comfortably. Clothes are now wrapped far tighter than they used to be. The reason given was, that outside working hours,  the traditional clothes are now often swapped for more comfortable ones.

We especially enjoyed the woodcuts on a wall in the last exhibition room. They are a running comment on an imaginary “day in the life of Geishas”. Our favourite was the one in which a tired Geisha thinks she’s all alone and customers have left at last. She takes a swig out of a kettle.

Though these woodcuts made us laugh, the harsh reality was also there: Geishas are at the beg and call of customers and can’t afford any scandals. Moreover, their working life of fame and splendour is short.

There was so much to see and experience, that I will certainly visit this exhibition again. However, my friends who only spoke English will not. Most of the information next to exhibits, as well as most of the videos are translated, but in Dutch.

So my Portuguese friend overlooked exhibits showing the impact of the Portuguese upon Japanese society. My American friend had to ask me to translate captions and explanations – and did not want to do that too often. Had things been different, this exhibition would have been an absolute “must see” for expats, tourists, and Dutch alike.

Many people claim “Memoirs of a Geisha” is a good book, or have seen the film? There are translations available of memoirs written by Japanese Geishas, like Mineko Iwasaki. I think as an introduction, you may like a book like “Geisha”, written by the American anthropologist Liza Dalby, known as the “blue-eyed” Geisha.

The exhibition “Geisha” can be visited at the Volkenkunde Museum, Leiden till the 5th of April 2015. For more info and help to plan a visit: Rijksmuseum Volkenkunde.

Exhibition “Early Middle Ages” at the RMO

The Rijksmuseum van Oudheden (Dutch National Museum of Antiquities) at Leiden has a temporary exhibition on the “dark” early middle ages. This temporary exhibition concerns archaeological finds from the Merovingian era. The exhibition runs till the end of October 2014. Apart from local finds, loans from museums from Belgium, Germany, and even the British Museum can be admired.

Many still call the early middle ages, running from roughly 400 till 800, the dark ages. But though the Western Roman Empire had collapsed, civilisation had not. The darkness has more to do with our lack of knowledge about these centuries. A visit to this temporary exhibition will prove quite enlightening.

This exhibition, which includes activities for children, covers many facets of life after the collapse of the late Western Roman Empire, during the Merovingian era, right up to the early years of Charlemagne. From the very first show cases, artefacts, illustrations and explanations, it is clear that the aristocracy, warriors, tradesmen, farmers, serfs and others which made up society at the time, enjoyed an impressive standard of living.

In general, people were healthier than in the preceding Roman Empire or following Middle Ages? Not that life was easy. The Anglo Saxon and other chronicles are of course full of wars, atrocities, bloodshed.

There are plenty weapons on show. The German gilt helmet is quite impressive, as is King Childeric’s sword. This sword may have been ceremonious. Other weapons were not. These may have been used in the many wars among family members, tribes, war lords, power-brokers. They may also have been used against Irish and other Christian missionaries. For this was also the era of Columbanus, Willibrordus and others, who brought Christianity to England and then ventured among Frankish, Frisian, and other pagan European tribes.

The exhibition gives a very good overview of all aspects of live. My friends and I were surprised to recognise many tools which have barely changed throughout the ages. Quite a few had to do with life stock like sheep. But there were also tools found in archaeological digs, which are still used by shoemakers and carpenters today.

From finds it is clear that affluent customers in Western Europe owned not only Scandinavian amber, precious stones, gold and locally made “bling-bling” and other status stuff. Personal belongings which ended up in graves, hoards, or were perhaps even just lost, came also from the Mediterranean, Middle East, India. Trade certainly had not collapsed with the Roman Empire.

The craftsmanship of what is on show is often fabulous. A precious ceremonial bowl found locally in 2013, necklaces, filigree and enamelled fibulas, and especially Merovingian glass are all of a high standard. The film of the recreation of a so-called “bell” glass was stunning and kept us wondering. How did they do it in say 600? How did they manage to control the heat? How many people were involved? It is very humbling to realise what people during this so-called dark, early middle ages were capable of – without the use of our present day machine and robot controlled procedures.

A visit to this temporary “Golden Middle Ages” exhibition can only be strongly recommended. Especially during the Dutch autumn school holidays this month. But should you be unable to visit this temporary exhibition, the museum’s permanent exhibitions on Pre-historic, Egyptian, Greek, and Roman art are also well worth a visit.

Exhibition “The Golden Middle Ages”, RMO Leiden runs till 26th of October 2014